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Brave new virtual world: ‘It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it’


Mike Abel is a leading marketing and advertising practitioner. He is Founder & Chief Executive of M&Saatchi Abel and M&C Saatchi Group of companies operating in SA. He is former CEO of M&C Saatchi Group, Australia and before that, co-led the Ogilvy South Africa Group as COO and Group Managing Director, Cape Town. Mike has been awarded Advertising Leader by the Financial Mail and Finweek and his company was named Best Agency in SA in 2015. His company is home to The Street Store, the open-source, pop-up clothing store for the homeless which has become a global movement. He is a speaker and writer.

Why the metaverse is the biggest opportunity at hand in almost three decades (but then again, perhaps it isn’t).

There’s always a lot of hype (and an equal dose of scepticism) around new inventions and innovations. For those of us around at the launch of the interweb in the 1990s, we well recall how our initial understanding of this tech was so astonishingly limited; we had no concept of how it would affect almost every aspect of our daily lives, from basic mail to e-commerce, recruitment, training, dating, movies, distance learning, running our businesses, schooling — and buying just about everything online during a global pandemic. I can’t imagine where the world would have been without the internet during Covid-19.  

But the initial naysayers and laggards failed to fully comprehend the limitless opportunities right in front of them. And I suspect we are at that very point again right now. But this time, it’s a little more complex, because it didn’t arrive in our lives as blockchain technology, but as cryptocurrency, more specifically, Bitcoin. And then the flurry of cryptos that followed.  

The first time I heard about Bitcoin it was at $80. I didn’t buy it. Had I bought, I would almost certainly have sold at $800 (10x!) and thought myself a genius. Those who believe they would have held are mostly fooling themselves because when you have such stratospheric returns in the short term, you want to lock in your winnings and mitigate risk. As Bernard Baruch said, “I made my money buying low and selling too soon.” 

So I was equally clever with Ethereum, which, unlike Bitcoin, I did buy. And like a fool, sold at five times (5x!) what I bought it for. But as the truism goes, “You never go bankrupt selling at a profit.” Hindsight, as they say. So here we are again. And what are we going to do? 

I never bought a single Tesla share, although I do think Elon Musk is a genius. I did believe in PayPal though, as I understood its role and function in a world increasingly driven by e-commerce, but I never understood (still don’t) the hype and mind-numbing valuations of the Tesla company. Some did, and how unbelievably lucky for them. But to think Tesla is more valuable than the bundling of all the great and massively profitable automotive brands is insane. 

“But it’s not an automotive company. It’s a leader in tech, batteries, alternate power and innovation,” I hear you say. Well, maybe you are right, and I’ll be proven wrong again. It won’t be the first or last time. And yet, I have always liked Apple. 

Steve Jobs, like Musk, was, without question, one of the greatest minds of our time. And this was evident to me from the time he launched Macintosh in the mid-1980s. I remember the iPhone launching when I was running the M&C Saatchi Group in Australia and the massive hype around the flatscreen, intuitive tech none of us had seen before. 

At the time I was a devotee of BlackBerry and that little round ball I’d toggle as I navigated the space-age smartphone that had replaced my trusty Nokia. And so as soon as I could get my paws on an iPhone I did. 

I had no idea how it would change the way I conducted my daily life. I no longer needed nor wanted a standalone camera, or a torch, or a diary, or my laptop when travelling, or my iPod filled with music. I no longer needed to buy newspapers and magazines or to go into a bank branch. I could now buy almost everything by using my smartphone — TVs, takkies, kettles, dog food and colognes from, take-away food using the Mr D app, clothing from (confession: they’re all clients of mine) and many, many more.  

Most of us saw a new fancy, touchscreen iPhone without fully understanding the power, application and profound investment value of the App Store and iTunes. We didn’t comprehend how so many exceptional companies would use the iPhone as a platform for enabling their businesses.  

I use WhatsApp for making calls. And then there is LinkedIn, Facebook, Insta, Twitter and the social media channels all powered by the iPhone. So, that is what Jobs invented. Not a phone, but an ecosystem. A platform for sharing and for collaborating. A modern lifestyle.  

And here we stand at the threshold of the next big thing. For some, it’s a clifftop. Those who confuse blockchain with crypto are in for a rude shock. Because while cryptocurrencies do use blockchain technology, the opportunity, impact and utility of this tech far exceed throwing darts at a board hoping you hit the right one when it comes to speculative investing. 

The real magic lies in understanding how blockchain technology itself unlocks exponential disruptive growth for new players who’ll eat some part or the whole of established category players. And even if they secure only 10% of multibillion-dollar industries, they’ll be exceptionally lucrative. 

For example, let’s look at Render (RNDR). This little crypto allows “digital video files to be formatted to meet bandwidth requirements for streaming”. Take a little time to digest the power of what this unlocks — then your mind can start joining the many dots of where this could go. 

As kids, we liked to play in the sandpit. Perhaps as adults, the Sandbox? This is “an Ethereum-based metaverse and gaming ecosystem where you can create, share, and monetize assets and games”. Just in the handy explanation, you can see why I could cry at selling my Ethereum (ETH) at 5x because unlike Bitcoin, this crypto can underpin some serious tech shit. 

Bitcoin for me is still about rarity (limited number) and transferring questionable funds, but other cryptos like the two I just touched on are all about massively disruptive technologies with explosive utility. And they plug directly into the zeitgeist of the sharing economy. 

Solana (SOL), for example, is a blockchain that supports creating crypto apps. A company launched in 2019 with a market cap of $42-billion (R630-billion), versus a company like Old Mutual, launched in 1845 and now worth R65.73-billion. In just three years, Solana has become worth 10 times more than a spectacularly successful financial services company that is 177 years old. As a result of this, the underlying technology and what it can unlock, there are a number of blockchain tokens I’m exploring with my deeply smart and trusted researchers and investment analysts.  

So what about the metaverse? Well, are your kids into gaming? Are you on social media? Perhaps you’re on Facebook (now listed as Meta). Are any of your kids playing Fortnite? The gaming company has an existing value of $28.7-billion. The global gaming industry has a value of $173.7-billion. And that’s before the metaverse as we know it explodes.  

“But what is the metaverse?” I hear some of you ask. Well, it’s “a virtual reality world where users can interact, game and experience things as they would in the real world”. 

Consider that just 1% of the world’s population has more than 45% of the world’s wealth. Roughly 56 million people have almost half the money of the remaining billions of people. Now, if the “wealthy” want to create or disappear into virtual worlds, then imagine how many people with far less would rather live in a virtual world, where if they are poor, they can be rich; if they are sick, they can be healthy; if they are paralysed, they can walk; and they can create any persona, self-identity or alternate reality they want. 

If gaming is currently an almost $200-billion industry, the metaverse is about to turn it into a multitrillion-dollar industry. And the metaverse is here to stay. 

It’ll attract a whole new audience too. Older people will enter this world for a new reality, for a post-work escape. To live the life they want to lead but don’t or can’t. It’ll be addictive, dangerous, thrilling and emancipating.  

Think of Insta and Facebook. How many people already apply filters to their photos? Ease outlines, whiten teeth, make themselves slimmer, add abs, brighter skies, carefully cropped and edited pics. Well, you ain’t seen nothing yet.  

These carefully curated lives are about to leave the physical and move into the virtual. Where your designer shoes from famous French and Italian fashion brands can be popped onto your avatar (your virtual self, curated and created as you’d like to be versus who you are). Is there something very sad about this? Definitely. Is there something liberating and exciting about it? Definitely. 

It’s an opportunity for escapism. To leave what you may consider a bland life and live in a new place. Meet new people. Have new friends and experiences. The metaverse will be the “global village” on steroids. There will be fun to be had. And money to be made. Fortnite is a free-to-play game, but purchases have already exceeded $1.2-billion. 

The metaverse is going to offer brands and businesses 24/7 global opportunities to engage with their audiences — and to entertain and sell. As a marketer and being in the advertising industry, I find this wildly exciting and can’t wait to realise these incredible opportunities for our clients.  

As an art collector, I’m fascinated by NFTs (non-fungible tokens) and have created one already as a test, but haven’t bought any. I prefer my art on my walls rather than on my phone and watch in dumb fascination how, for example, a Bored Ape NFT has gone from $190 to over $275,000 and Justin Bieber just bought one for $1.29-million worth of ETH. I’d rather have a magnificent Athi-Patra Ruga or William Kentridge, thank you. 

But, NFT technology will unlock a host of opportunities for brands and investors. 

I love the myriad of opportunities for new branding, sponsorship and marketing, as well as content creation. And for creating new routes to marketing and distribution solutions. As an investor, I understand the underlying utility and application of these platforms which will result in disproportionate growth and returns. “Beam me up, Scotty.” 

Were The Firm to launch their famous song today, it might well have been called Star Trekkin’ Across the Metaverse. Anyone jumping on board with me? DM


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  • John Cartwright says:

    What amounts to an ‘opportunity for escapism’ is ‘wildly exciting’ to an apparently intelligent and enterprising grown man. Ag siestog, jong.

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